Kenneth Shiotani is a senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). He trains and gives technical assistance to the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agencies on Title I, II, and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, fair housing and federally assisted housing, and employment law and gives legal support to the agencies’ Help America Vote Act project. He is responsible for LegalEase, the monthly publication that highlights relevant court decisions and federal regulations and guidance to the P&A agencies. He is NDRN’s amicus coordinator. Before joining NDRN in 2005, he represented low-income people in housing and public benefits cases in urban and rural civil legal aid programs in New York and Maryland. His work ranged from defending evictions in local courts to public benefits hearings to appeals and impact litigation in the federal courts. He began his legal services career in 1980 as a VISTA volunteer and then as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow. Ken received a B.A. in history from New York University and his J.D. from Brooklyn Law School.
What do you like best about your job?
I like the ability to have a positive effect on the lives of people with disabilities. At NDRN I work on issues that are important in everyone’s life—housing, transportation, and employment. I am particularly proud of reports that NDRN produced in the past few years. One, which I coauthored, held Amtrak accountable for its failure to make its stations accessible 20 years after the deadline imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Being a bit of a train buff, I actually had a lot of fun working with our member P&A agencies making site visits, photographing, and analyzing surveys of the inaccessible Amtrak stations. The report resulted in the Federal Railroad Administration increasing scrutiny of Amtrak’s spending on ADA projects and the U.S. Department of Justice issuing a letter of findings that we hope will lead to a consent decree setting firm deadlines for Amtrak to make its stations accessible.
The other report, where I played a much smaller role, exposed the use of a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act, Section 14(c), allowing people with disabilities to be paid a subminimum wage. The subminimum wage report has shined a light on workers who, in many cases, earn less than a dollar an hour. NDRN’s report has promoted other media coverage and seems to be moving the public dialogue toward reform and possibly phasing out the subminimum wage.
Your work with NDRN gives you a fairly big-picture view of the disability-law landscape. What is the biggest legal issue that you see low-income people with disabilities facing right now?
More than 25 years after the passage of the ADA, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities remains stubbornly high.
I think the continued discrimination that people with disabilities face in employment. More than 25 years after the passage of the ADA, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities remains stubbornly high. The participation of individuals with significant disabilities in the labor market remains low despite the development of assistive technologies that would allow people who would not have been able to work in the past to be productive today. I think the problem is a mix of attitudinal barriers in the way employers think about how jobs need to be performed as well as outright discrimination.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
My heroes are the attorneys and advocates who staff the local P&A offices. They do a range of work from giving self-advocacy advice to parents of children with disabilities or employees who need a reasonable accommodation to remain working to doing impact work that changes how states care for people with disabilities. The P&A attorneys have been on the cutting edge of enforcing the rights created under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the ADA, and the Fair Housing Act.
Our Clearinghouse article this month looks at due process and “ascertainable standards,” particularly in the Medicaid context. When you were in legal aid practice in the 1990s, you worked on one of the cases cited in that article, Catanzano v. Dowling, which was a victory in the Second Circuit. Other than that case, what case or client or piece of advocacy comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction?
Because my work no longer involves direct client work, I need to take satisfaction in other ways. One project that was very satisfying was finding the perfect witness for a Department of Justice hearing on a revision of ADA regulations. A proposed change in the regulations would require direct access to a raised stage for wheelchair users in new or altered auditoriums. However, there was significant pushback on that particular provision. Through my work with the P&As, I was aware of a student who used a wheelchair and who had missed multiple opportunities to be with her fellow students at a number of awards and graduation ceremonies because the stages in her elementary and middle schools were inaccessible. The testimony of her mother at the Justice Department hearing about her daughter’s inability to participate in important school ceremonies because she used a wheelchair brought tears to the eyes of the federal officials at the hearing and resulted in the adoption of the direct-access requirement in the revised ADA regulations.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Because I do have some opportunity to travel to different parts of the country as part of my job, I take advantage of the opportunity as a train buff to ride trains, subways, light-rail systems, and even occasionally local transit buses. I also seek out rail and aviation museums whenever there is one nearby.